Much of Act’s 1996 campaign focused on converting National voters to Act. The success of this strategy, no doubt, partly accounted for Act eventually crossing over the 5% MMP threshold. Although the National Party never formally agreed to a strategy to help get Act into Parliament as a potential coalition partner, some key National individuals did help Richard Prebble win his constituency seat. Prebble had chosen to run in the Wellington Central seat and he had a well-resourced and enthusiastic team of activists campaigning for him. The campaign in this particular seat became a central part of Act’s election strategy. [Read more below]
Act’s chances were first helped when 'chief National Party strategist Murray McCully tacitly endorsed tactical voting by National voters in the seat by saying that they were "alive to the wider implications" of their vote’ (Fraser and Zangouropoulos, 1998: p.56). But it was only when Jim Bolger publicly picked a Prebble victory in Wellington Central that the balance of scale was finally tipped in favour of Prebble. He won the seat with 35% of the electorate vote.
Although the Wellington Central win was not, in the end, necessary for Act to get its list MPs into Parliament, as the party surpassed the 5% MMP threshold, the party did find that ‘as support increased for Prebble in the seat, it simultaneously increased for the party nation-wide' (Fraser and Zangouropoulos, 1998: p.50).
Towards the end of the 1996 election campaign the party came up with a new slogan: ‘Act, your MMP insurance’. This was a last minute alteration to the Act election strategy and one which acknowledged that the race had become characterised by a choice between ‘left-wing change versus right-wing stability’ – with the result that Act now had to place more emphasis on itself being a party of stability rather than change. According to one party manager: ‘All our research was telling us that our constituency wanted change, but not too much change. They wanted us to be different [from National], but not too different’ (quoted in Heeringa, 1996: p.27).
Next blog post: The 1996 campaign techniques